November 23, 2016

England have this series in the bag. The stats say so

And as we all know, you can try argue with stats, but you can't win
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Poor India, won't know what hit them in the last three © Associated Press

England have skilfully manoeuvred themselves into exactly the position they wanted to be in at this stage of the series - one down with three to play, the launchpad from which they rocketed to victory in 2014 in England and four years ago in India.

David Gower's 1984-85 tourists managed to beat India after being one down with four to play, but cricket was different then, and the absolutely critical key for England when playing India in the modern, 21st-century, contemporary, up-to-date era of today is to be one down with three to play.

The proof is in the numbers. Over the last one third of a century, England have won 100% of their series against India in which they have trailed by a Test with a trio of matches remaining; and a mere 50% of the rubbers which they have led with three Tests to play.

Admittedly, each of those samples only contains two series (England drew 1-1 after leading in 2002, and won 4-0 in 2011), and the other eight series between the two countries since 1986 were only three (or, in 2008-09, two) Tests long, but DO NOT ARGUE WITH THE STATS. I repeat: DO NOT ARGUE WITH THE STATS. Stats know all things. England have this series in the bag.

Nevertheless, despite the mathematical certainty of eventual victory, there will be some concerns in the England camp as the series moves to Mohali, after a slightly odd performance in Visakhapatnam. They played with resilience and determination, while at the same time managing to cram three collapses into a two-innings match. They fought hard, but abandoned most, if not all, hope as soon as the coin fell on day one. "It looks like a crucial toss to win - we have now nothing to lose," said Alastair Cook after being sentenced to field first, exuding the positivity of a mechanic looking under a car bonnet to see a tired-looking goat where the engine should have been. "Oooooh," his face said. "That's going to need some work."

The "nothing to lose" approach in the second innings consisted of obdurate defence in the face of a required run rate of 2.7 per over. It appears that victory did not enter much into England's thoughts, but by aiming only for wicket preservation, all pressure was removed from the Indian bowlers, when even a run rate of, say, 2.3 per over could have established a platform to challenge for victory, forced some of the close catchers back, and engendered some doubts in Indian minds.

England would almost certainly still have lost. They would probably have lost more quickly, and by approximately the same margin. India's bowlers, more skilled and confident than in 2012-13, applied an unremitting stranglehold in favourable conditions, and the difficulty that a world-class technician such as Joe Root had on the fifth morning suggests that England were essentially choosing between two different paths to defeat, between whether to fire up the engines of the Titanic or shut them down. The iceberg had already won.

The model for England's attempted escape was South Africa's epic one-run-per-over 143-over constipatogrind in Delhi last year, when India could only take five wickets in the first 138 overs, before a rapid denouement. There were similarities in the two scenarios, and perhaps if Cook had survived the final over on day four, England would have come closer to achieving their goal.

Such controversies as the latest ball-tampering row could be easily avoided if an independent nurse were on hand to swab all the fielding teams' gobs at the end of each over, and force any player with an above-regulation level of slobber to eat a packet of extremely dry biscuits

But there were significant differences too - the South Africans had been dismantled over four Tests, bowled out for 214 or less in six consecutive innings, crushed, defeated and confused. England were level in the series, after a strong first Test, and had been outplayed but competitive for most of this match. A year ago, India had declared in a position of near complete invulnerability, setting a target of 481; England had taken that decision out of Kohli's hands, impressively bowling India out to keep the target within the range of the massively-unlikely-but-precedented.

Will they regret not taking a bolder strategy, even if it would have resulted in the same defeat? Will they regret not taking more of a chance in their second innings in Rajkot? In all likelihood, they would still be one-nil down with three to play - perhaps they had indeed studied the numbers.

The advent of in-mouth salivometers cannot come soon enough for cricket, after the financial naughty-stepping of Faf du Plessis for allegedly sugaring the pill in the Hobart Test. Without him using confectionery-enhanced flobble, of course, Australia would have scored 680 for 4 and won by an innings or two. Until the spitologists invent the technology to measure and regulate cricketers' mouthic expectorances, such controversies could be easily avoided if an independent nurse were on hand to swab all the fielding teams' gobs at the end of each over, and force any player with an above-regulation level of slobber to eat a packet of extremely dry biscuits. The ICC must act fast before teams start tattooing their players' inner eyelids with pictures of succulent roast meats and amply loaded dessert trolleys to enable them to spontaneously slaver on demand. The very future of the sport is at steak. Sorry, at stake.

Ball-tampering, of course, is nothing new. Back in the old days, of course, before the intrusion of the prying lens of the camera, players would take the field with a bar of soap in their mouth, or in trousers slathered with beef dripping, or wearing sunhats made of beehives, giving a ready supply of honey to apply to one side of the ball.

Rumour has it that one 1920s England player was selected purely because he had unusually baggy cheeks, and could keep a pint of engine oil secreted in his floppy jowls for an entire session of cricket, while, in the county game, decades before Dennis Lillee's metal bat, a team was found to have tampered with the balls for their home matches by inserting a powerful magnet under the leather. That season, Albert "Metalgloves" Frockinghurst took a record 163 catches and 73 stumpings, while conceding zero byes.

In the early days of professional cricket, the great Frantshire spinner Carslake Stroughtmorden famously gelled his hair with wet cement every morning, then ran his fingers through his flowing locks before each ball so that the drying construction material would form an adhesive coating on his fingers, enabling him to spin the ball by anything up to eight yards off the straight. He could regularly be seen chipping the now-hardened substance off his hands at the end of play. Those were more innocent days, of course, when such things were unscrutinised by the media.

Jayant Yadav's debut may not leap off the scorecard in years to come, but he had an influential match in all three disciplines, with 62 runs, four wickets and a major role in the important run-out of Haseeb Hameed. The last Indian to score 50 or more runs and take three or more wickets on Test debut was Sourav Ganguly in 1996 (who took three wickets in each of his first two Tests, but only twice more in his last 111); before him, Venkatapathy Raju, the left-arm spinner who made 31 and 21 on debut, then only passed 20 once more in 27 Tests of certifiable rabbitery.

"Are you sure you ought to be wetting your mouth more, in the circumstances?" © Getty Images

Cranking the stat-threshold up slightly, Yadav is only the 14th player to score 60 or more runs and take four or more wickets on Test debut; the first since Tim Southee in March 2008, and only the second Indian after Syed Abid Ali, the allrounder who took 6 for 55 and 1 for 61, and scored a pair of 33s, against Australia in Adelaide in December 1967.

● Hameed's run-out was only the ninth suffered by a top-five England batsman in Tests this decade, out of 725 dismissals, making England by far the team least likely to lose a top-five player to a run-out this decade (other than Zimbabwe, who have played the fewest Tests since 2010, and whose top five are yet to register a run-out but have proved adept at many other forms of dismissal).

Only one in every 80 dismissals of a top-five England player has been a run-out since 2010; leading the way in likeliest top-order run-out candidates are Australia - 24 out of 658, or one every 27 top-five innings. (Behind them: Pakistan 32; South Africa 33; India 34; New Zealand 34; Bangladesh 44; Sri Lanka 48; West Indies 54.)

English top-order batsmen have a long-established tradition of not running between the wickets as incompetently as their peers. In the 2000s, only West Indies (once every 46 innings) were less likely to suffer a top-five run-out than England (45). Perennial risk-runners Australia (24) were second only to Zimbabwe (22) in top orders most likely to be run out.

From 1980 to 1999 - not, it may fairly be said, an era of untrammelled batting success for England - not losing top-order wickets to idiotic top-order run-outs was the one area in which England led the cricketing universe - again, only one every 45 innings, well ahead of second-placed Pakistan (33.5), with all the other teams in the 25-30 range.

England lost all ten wickets for under 90 runs for the second time in three Tests, having only done so four times in 241 Tests since being skittled for 77 by Glenn McGrath at Lord's in 1997. Unsurprisingly, five of these six ten-wicket flumps have been in Asia (two in Sri Lanka, one in the UAE against Pakistan, and the two this winter), with the other being the 51-all-out cataclysm of batsmanship against Jerome Taylor and Sulieman Benn in Jamaica in February 2009.

● Stokes, Bairstow and Rashid became the first visiting Nos. 6, 7 and 8 to score 30 or more each in the same Test innings in India since AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher and Morne Morkel for South Africa in March 2008, 42 Indian Tests ago. It was only the sixth time in 352 away Tests since 1935 that England's 6, 7 and 8 all scored 30 in an away Test innings, the most recent of which was in the fifth Test in South Africa in 2004-05, since when they have accomplished the feat in home Tests on seven occasions, including three times last summer.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gautham Eswar on November 30, 2016, 8:56 GMT

    Andy sorry mate...your stats proved wrong !!

  • memoriesofthepast on November 29, 2016, 10:05 GMT

    Since 1984-85, England already had won in 3 tours of test matches vs India in which India were 1-0 ahead of England. Now after losing at Vizag and Mohali, England cannot win this series-most likely they will lose this seris -to level it they have to win at Mumbai and also at the humid Chennai. England had won toss at Rajkot and also at Mohali and were given 5 tests to come back-but England failed to take advantage of them.

  • fifth_ump on November 25, 2016, 13:06 GMT

    Sorry Andy! Funny as it may be, your writing is only the second best funniest piece on this page... after the post by US_INDIAN ON NOVEMBER 23, 2016, 22:45 GMT

  • Cricinfouser on November 25, 2016, 6:23 GMT

    As always...brilliant Andy Zaltzman!!!!!!

  • lucy6m on November 25, 2016, 1:32 GMT

    This year England's first five wickets have averaged less than the "tail". With bowlers and keepers more susceptible to injury, that doesn't seem like a sustainable game plan.

  • Pelham_Barton on November 24, 2016, 10:53 GMT

    mani86 on November 23, 2016, 10:33 GMT: The link is wrong, and pointing to the three-match series in India in December 2001. The remark relates to the four-match series in England from July to September 2002, which was drawn 1-1 after England won the first Test at Lord's.

  • Jose...P on November 24, 2016, 8:32 GMT

    @Andy Zaltzman

    When it comes to the "Ball Maintenance Crew" with an assigned 'leader' (like Faf for SA, or Root for Eng) - which seems to be integral part of any cricket team, you showed a bias, when it comes to the tools they can use. Indirectly you supported one set of manufactures and hurt another group.

    Let me explain.

    You have actively pushed "Salivometers"! Totally ignored "Sweatometers" . You targeted 'confectionery' unwittingly hurting them, but let go with 'skin-care products' manufactures, with kid-gloves.

    Two of my big clients (one Indian & the other Indian Dvn of a Anglo-Dutch MNC) are in the businesses of both, 'Personal Care' & 'Food'. You have created a divide among them.

    Personal care under which 'skincare' comes feel happy with you, by not suggesting 'Sweatometers'. On behalf of them, I am conveying their thanks. Let me not even utter a word on what the Confectionery guys in the Food Dvns are saying. Let's just leave it at that!

  • ReverseLeggie on November 24, 2016, 6:24 GMT

    He is a fantastically humorous... especially about the ball tampering... ROFLOL....exactly Rolling On Floor Laughing Out Loud..... Awesome piece Andy

  • cricfanSSV on November 24, 2016, 2:43 GMT

    Priceless- "Without him using confectionery-enhanced flobble, of course, Australia would have scored 680 for 4 and won by an innings or two" ! hits the nail on the head. Which could be another way of hiding ball-shining paraphernalia- that is, nailing them to the head..

  • MAK123 on November 24, 2016, 2:16 GMT

    seriously serious stuff. seriously serious fun stuff. Kudos Andy Z

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